Several years ago my husband and I traveled to the Florida Keys to celebrate our anniversary. We stayed on Marathon but made our way to Key West for a day. Many of you have been there and you know that everything stops as the sunset approaches. The shops empty out, people drift out of bars, and gather at Mallory Square to watch the light show! There are street performers who take advantage of the guaranteed audience but even they know to pack up their gig as the sun dips lower in the sky. The sun is the indisputable star of the show. I was amazed at the sense of reverence that fell over this crowd of people, many holding on to their drinks and a loved one. There were show-off boat captains who sailed across our line of vision as the sun touched the horizon. But nothing could distract us from the glory of a painted sky, the rosy reflection on the clouds and the rather rapid disappearance of the sun. When the last ray of light left us the crowd broke into applause! It felt holy to me. I felt like I’d been to church, worshiped the God of all Creation with an unwitting congregation. With drinks in hand we had communed together whether folks knew that Jesus was the host of the party or not.
Perhaps you are still full from the holidays? Maybe you’ve had your fill of celebrative meals and family gatherings. Perhaps you’ve already dry cleaned your holiday attire and have settled happily into sweats and slippers? We can only take so much partying before we long for a “normal” routine. When we’re full it’s hard to make room for others. When focused on our agendas, we don’t listen well to each other. We’re so busy thinking about what interesting comment we will add to the conversation that we don’t hear what our companion is saying. It’s good to empty out so that we can experience our hunger for community and for God.
It’s Epiphany today—the 12th day of Christmas. It doesn’t often fall on a Sunday. An epiphany is when God touches down in our lives in some undeniable way. The season of Epiphany tells us of Christ’s glory and reminds us of His centrality in our lives. We most easily recognize our dependence on Him when there’s some empty space in our hearts. The reading from Matthew 2 tells the story of wise men, sages, ancient astrologers who were paying attention to the skies. When a remarkable star appeared they not only gave it their full attention. They were open to the nudging of God that directed them to leave their homes, jobs, and families. They abandoned their professional credibility to find the One whose birth was heralded by the star. We know that their journey was long and sacrificial. So there must have been an emptiness in them that could only be satisfied by pursuing Jesus.
One word for communion is Eucharist which translates to mean gratitude, grace, rejoicing. Eucharist is communal. If we look around our towns and cities we see eucharist happening in bars and restaurants, gyms and on the local bike trail. Folks are trying to connect but brokenness remains if no one acknowledges that Jesus is the host, that the Son is the star of the show. If folks aren’t paying attention to each other because they’re so full of themselves, they will leave each social gathering lonely.
The health insurer, Cigna, did a nationwide survey about loneliness in our North American culture. 54% of the respondents stated that no one really knows them well! That’s a startling statistic! Younger adults, born between the 1990’s and the early 2000’s, suffer from higher levels of loneliness than people age 72 and older. Some link a rise in social media with an increase in depression and suicide with the younger generation. Cigna and other health professionals have called this an epidemic in our culture. To suffer from loneliness has the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day! It is deadly.
Table fellowship has suffered in recent years because of the frenzied pace of our western life. Perhaps some of you have developed rules for sitting at the table with your family. What interferes with really being with each other? Some owners have banned cell phones from their restaurants. The customers are so focused on their screens that they hardly notice the carefully-crafted ambiance and not even the food that is served to them. Rather than enjoying rich conversation that deepens a connection to another person, they focus on social media connections and leave the dinner as isolated as when they arrived.
In the Lenten season last year our congregation read a book by David Fitch: Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. Fitch and his wife hosted a dinner group at their home for many years each Friday. Phones were not allowed. They practiced intentional sharing with each other that required good listening and authentic self-disclosure. Over a meal they reflected on God’s presence among them. If they noticed that they drifted into bragging or other forms of self-serving dialogue, they reminded themselves that they gathered each week to meet the deep needs of the other. They ended each evening with prayer and witnessed tremendous healing in their group. They acknowledged that Christ was the Friday-night host, paying close attention to Him and to each other.
Communion can happen in settings outside of the sanctuary. Remember when Jesus and His disciples were surrounded by a crowd of more than 5000 people? Jesus recognized their hunger and asked the disciples to feed them. They were stunned, panic-stricken! They assumed that they would have to rely only on their own resources to sate this enormous Sunday School class. They forgot that Jesus was the Host. They didn’t believe that He could take whatever earthly resources were available and transform them into a means of grace, gratitude, and rejoicing. The text tells us that Jesus took the bread, gave thanks for it, broke it and gave it to His disciples to distribute to the people. All ate to their fill and there were even twelve baskets of leftovers! How does that happen? When we welcome Jesus as the Host to a meal, it becomes Eucharist and we are nourished.
There are times in my ministry when I’ve been invited to eat with someone. Some of those settings have been unappetizing—a nursing home with a strong odor, a soup kitchen where the meal was unappealing, a room where there was a sick or dying individual for whom we were caring. From early in our ministry together my husband and I called this “Jesus food.” We enter into these settings as the guest, willing to eat what is put before us with grateful hearts.
In his book, Fitch reminds us that taking Jesus into our world means voluntarily going to people and settings where we become the guest. We become vulnerable because we aren’t calling the shots. For Eucharist to be genuine, those with the most power must submit first. Like the magi. On their travels I am sure that, when they rode into town, people noticed. They were important, respected, revered. Yet they subjected themselves to God’s will for their lives rather than clinging to their own agendas. One of my claims to fame was a conversation with Christopher Reeve. I worked on Mackinac Island the summer that the movie, Somewhere in Time, was shot. I was an extra in the movie one day and ran into my pal Chris at the end of the day! He interacted with lots of islanders that summer as if he were just another regular guy—which, really, he was! One waitress friend was at a bar one night where people were dancing. The actor asked her to dance and asked her what her name was. He then introduced himself to her as Chris—as if she didn’t know! His modesty was winsome.
When we take Christ out into the community, to the people and places of His choosing, those of us who have status submit to the hospitality of others and become the guest. Fitch writes that in each setting of the table, “a space is opened up for Christ’s presence to come and manifest His rule among us as a community.” (page 67) Communion refuels us. Unless we gather together at this table with Jesus we will fall, as a congregation, into spiritual exhaustion. We may be able to maintain our present programing but we won’t grow in the Spirit. If we think first of meeting our own individual needs in a church family, our church will ultimately die. Jesus got down on His knees to wash His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. The Host of the feast became the least of all so as to glorify God.
On this Epiphany Sunday we look in on the arduous journey of the wise men. Their culture, nationality, language and beliefs separated them from the Christ child. Yet they recognized that only He could fill their empty hearts with love. They paid attention to the movement of God’s Spirit. They were the first foreigners to worship Jesus, signaling that He was sent by God to bring healing to the world!
Fitch describes the impact of this table: “In this space we submit all of our divisions and personal agendas to Christ’s presence. All of this must die. There we sit, tending to one another and to his presence. And an amazing social dynamic breaks forth that can only be described as a new political order subverting all other allegiances. Just as the first tables of the early Christians subverted Rome and Caesar and started a new way of life before the watching world, so this table subverts all other politics of American self-preservation, accumulation, and individualism. A profound flourishing in the kingdom results.” (page 53)
When we pay attention to Jesus in our midst, a profound flourishing in the kingdom ensues. The results are grace, gratitude, and rejoicing. What a great way to begin a new year!